Silicon Valley is dismantling a priceless piece of its history

[Photo: Harry McCracken]

Only a few companies can claim to have been part of Silicon Valley before the term “Silicon Valley” came into use—and the legendary Ampex is one of them. Founded in 1944 by Alexander Poniatoff, it introduced the first commercial video-tape recorder in 1956, thereby ushering in a new era in communications. It’s easy to connect the dots between Ampex’s legacy and other key accomplishments in tech history: It gave Atari founder Nolan Bushnell his first job in the Valley, for example. Bushnell, in turn, gave Steve Jobs his first job at Atari.

I took this photo in 2016. [Photo: Harry McCracken]

Though Ampex still exists as a maker of digital storage systems, it no longer occupies its historic headquarters alongside Highway 101 in Redwood City. But its vintage sign remained—a wonderfully evocative reminder of the Valley’s roots which you could appreciate even if you were stuck in traffic.

In a horrifying act of cultural shortsightedness, however, the Ampex sign is coming down. Stanford University, whose Stanford Health Care now occupies the land around the sign, has decided to dismantle it as it continues to develop the property. The city of Redwood City, which should have done everything in its power to prevent that from happening, instead concluded that the sign wasn’t a historic landmark.

I heard this news last night, and took it hard. This morning, I instinctively skipped out of work in order to visit the Ampex sign one last time. Its letters are already gone; as I arrived, I witnessed guys in hard hats in the process of dismantling the sign itself. I resisted the temptation to chain myself to the base—I wish I’d thought to bring the necessary equipment—but did pay my respects and take some photos.

The Ampex sign is going into storage in case somebody wants it. (The current incarnation of Ampex wasn’t interested.) But really, everyone involved in its removal from its spot next to 101 should be ashamed of themselves. Silicon Valley has a regrettable lack of interest in its own story: For instance, IBM’s fantastic 1950s San Jose campus stands in vandalized ruins, unless they’ve bulldozed it since my last visit. May that change while there’s still history left to preserve.HM